In the opening chapter of Robin Oliveira's My Name Is Mary Sutter, the midwife of the title shows up at the door of a doctor struggling with a childbirth. It is the dawn of the Civil War, and Sutter expertly takes over, changing the baby's position in the womb and delivering him without complication.
There has been some confusion, however. The surgeon had summoned her, but Mary was unaware of that. She had come on her own, having been denied an interview at the Albany Medical College, and she had a request of the doctor.
"Miss Sutter," the physician asks after the baby has been safely delivered, "what was it you wanted from me this afternoon?"
Her reply propels Oliveira's debut novel: "I want to become a doctor." And her tenacity - at the doctor's office and at a Sutter family dinner that night - shows that she won't accept "no" for an answer.
The doctor wants to be a field surgeon in the war effort, and Mary presses him during the meat course: "You want to see what can happen to the human body. You want to see inside it. You want to solve its mysteries. Not that you should be ashamed. It is no less than I would wish to do. Given the opportunity."
Without forcing the parallel, there's a lot of Mary Sutter in Robin Oliveira, who will be discussing her 2010 book at three area libraries April 22 and 23 as part of the All Iowa Reads program. And in both Sutter's and Oliveira's stories are important lessons about the power of persistence.
Oliveira began the book in roughly 2001, after a career as a critical-care nurse and then after raising her children. When her youngest went to kindergarten, she was at a crossroads. "Do I go back to nursing, or do I try to write a book?" she said in a phone interview earlier this week. "Above everything I love language, and I love reading."
This was in the late 1990s, and she began writing - stories and essays - and finished but ultimately discarded a novel that had generated interest from a publisher. ("I'm really glad" it never got published, she said, "because it's a really horrible novel.")
In 2001, she said, "I was dusting my dining room one day, and this character appeared to me. She was seated at a trestle table, she had scientific books behind her, and she was looking through a microscope. And it was nighttime. So I knew that what she wanted was something that was forbidden to her, and that she had to hide what she was doing. I started to read about women in science, and I learned that women became physicians out of their experiences in the Civil War."
And that, one could say, was the conception of Mary Sutter. Birthing the novel, however, took nearly a decade.
"During that time," she said, "I was still teaching myself to write."
She had gotten roughly halfway through the book and had done extensive research when she enrolled in the Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2004, "to see if they could teach me how to write" a novel.
One of her instructors, Douglas Glover, was skeptical that the novel would ever work. Oliveira said Glover is "incisive and careful and unrelenting and holds the bar very high. ... He called the novel a 'troublesome thing,'"
The problem, she said, was that "I didn't understand novel structure. I didn't understand how novels worked. ... And I wasn't hooking the reader in those early pages. ... For a reader to connect with a book, the main character has to want something so deeply that the reader - who may not and [perhaps] never has wanted the same thing - will still understand the longing and the yearning, and will therefore then invest in the character."
She kept with it."I was really grateful that I had the determination to not let his [Glover's] initial - and probably very valid - comments about the novel keep me from pursuing a story that I really wanted to tell."
Oliveira said that after getting her MFA in 2006, she returned home and ditched the work she'd done at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
The re-writing process, she said, did not involve merely tweaking previous drafts. "I set them aside and start[ed] with a blank page," she said. "I wouldn't re-write looking at the old stuff." If something from an older draft appeared superior to something she'd just written, she'd try to incorporate it.
"I was trying to write a big saga without ever having published anything but two essays and a couple short stories. I wasn't sure of myself, and I was obsessive."
She said that by the time she finished with My Name Is Mary Sutter on December 14, 2008 - she was specific on the date - "I re-wrote that first chapter a hundred times. ... Literally a hundred." And the rest of the book, she said, probably went through 15 drafts.
And this was done largely to satisfy herself. Outside of 100 pages she sent to the James Jones Literary Society's First Novel Fellowship - which she won in 2007 - nobody read the book between her time at the Vermont College of Fine Arts and its completion.
That award, she said, "was validation that the book might not be too bad. But they never read the rest of it."
Oliveira said she had the gift of time. "I never knew whether or not Mary Sutter was even going to be published. Nobody was interested. Nobody knew I was writing it. For me, it was this great puzzle to try to do, and I wanted to write a book that I would want to read. It was just sort of a lovely little companion ... . There was a freedom in the sense that nobody was waiting for it ... .
"I didn't have the confidence. I just wanted it really badly. So I worked really hard to make it go."
The work paid off. My Name Is Mary Sutter was a New York Times bestseller, won the 2011 Michael Shaara Award for Excellence in Civil War Fiction, and was a 2010 honorable mention for the Langum Prize for American Historical Fiction.
And Glover, who had been so doubtful about the novel's prospects in the MFA program, wrote in his book blurb that the labor of love ended up "a magnificent Civil War epic" and "a riveting read." Oliveira said that "one of the most wonderful things he said to me was, 'This is a really good book.'"
The author followed up My Name Is Mary Sutter with last year's I Always Loved You, about the relationship between the artists Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas. The "permission" for the book, Oliveira said, was the fact that Cassatt burned her correspondence only with Degas, creating a gap in the historical record that the novel attempts to fill. "People burn letters for a reason," she said.
With I Always Loved You, however, the author didn't have the luxury of unlimited time. Once the book was sold, she had a year to write it. I asked whether the book suffered because of that rush, and Oliveira laughed. "I suffered an awful lot," she said.
At one point, she had to send her editor a draft she didn't like. "I knew there were problems with it," she said. "I just hadn't solved them yet."
Even when it was published, Oliveira said, she wasn't sure if it met her standards. She said that while re-reading it for a book tour, however, she thought: "'Okay, it isn't bad. I like this one.' But I didn't have that sense of pride that I had when I finished Mary Sutter, when I had looked at every single word so many times that I knew it was exactly what I wanted."
Oliveira had intended her next novel to return to her fascination with Russia - she studied its language and literature in college - but she said she's abandoned that project: "I realized that book wasn't going to work. ... It wasn't compelling for me. ... If I get blocked, if I can't go forward, it's generally because there just isn't enough character desire to make it work."
I asked whether she encountered those roadblocks in the years she was writing My Name Is Mary Sutter. "I didn't," she said. "I was teaching myself how to write."
And how does Mary Sutter hold up for her now? She said she re-visitied it in October to prepare for upcoming engagements.
"Sometimes writers forget what they've written," she said. "I kept turning the page wondering what was going to happen next, even though ... I'd written what was going to happen next. But I was engaged."
Robin Oliveira will discuss My Name is Mary Sutter at three local events: Wednesday, April 22, at the Maquoketa Public Library (7 p.m., 126 South Second Street), and Thursday, April 23 at Moline Public Library (11:30 a.m., 3210 41st Street) and the Bettendorf Public Library (7 p.m., 2950 Learning Campus Drive).
For more information on Robin Oliveira, visit RobinOliveira.com.
For more information on All Iowa Reads, visit IowaCenterForTheBook.org.